I have always thought of Christmas as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their hearts freely. And therefore, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
Those are the words of Charles Dickens, and I have completely come around to his point of view.
I’ve always been a secular Jewish humanist – an atheist who believes that human problems can be solved by human beings, with no reference to any divine authority. But in Judaism, as in other cases throughout the world, ethnicity and religion tend to overlap. Just as many Arabs are Muslims (though some are secular), many Jews believe in God and in the truth of the Bible (i.e., the 19 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible or, as Christians and others call it, the Old Testament).
But we secular humanists do not, even though we identify with Jewish culture and history. And we secular Jews do share the American Jewish experience.
Early on, for me, as for many 1950s Jews growing up in Christian America, Christmas felt like a gigantic party to which we were not invited. In response, a lot of Jews made compromises with Christmas (putting up Christmas trees in their homes, for example), or exploded Hanukkah into a competitive festival – or both.
Then I looked closer at Christmas and saw the sordid underbelly that Christians knew was there all along: the overeating, the overdrinking, the overspending, the frantic gift buying and all the emotions that accompany it, the frantic partying...it all seemed so exhausting, and I became thankful for not having to be involved in it.
So now my attitude toward Christmas is more balanced, and I can watch benignly, participate a little, and feel myself in harmony with those aspects of Christmas that agree with who I am: the spirit, the season, and Jesus. That's right, Jesus. I'll explain.
The season and the spirit are obvious from the words of Dickens and to anybody who’s grown up with as many Christmases as I have. It's a time when everything smells good and looks good...and when Christians practice what they preach, or at least try to. Compassion, charity, and good cheer predominate. We become conscious, if only briefly, that we are all indeed brothers and sisters -- in fact, science tells us that the genetic differences between us are infinitesimal.
And what about Jesus? I'm not a Jew for Jesus, but he clearly had something important to say. As a secular humanist, I set aside all the storytelling, all the supernatural events, all the centuries of iconography and cathedral building. I think about the man himself.
Libraries are full of exegesis and speculation, but what do we really know? He was a preacher, a teacher, and, very importantly, a Reminder. (He was executed, apparently, along with many others, as an enemy of the state; secular humanists attach no particular significance to his death).
Just as it does in every era, religion had drifted loose from its original, spiritual moorings: good behavior, good works, a good life. Like the ancient Hebrew prophets, Jesus reminded people that it wasn't about fancy temples and priestly vestments, any more than today it’s about showing up at Christmas or the High Holidays in your furs and your Lexus. It is about good thoughts and good deeds.
Mythology aside, there can be no question that Jesus, however valid and memorable his preaching, was not unique. Equally -- and more -- sophisticated material on morality, psychology, and spirituality appears in the Tao te Ching, which dates from the sixth century B.C.E., and in the Upanishads, ancient Hindu texts from as early as the eighth century B.C.E.
But Jesus reminded people about the importance of compassion, humility, charity, and nonviolence...and about the individual’s responsibility for making moral choices. In the ancient world, such spiritually advanced individuals were few and far between. They were rare enough to have entire religions founded upon them, especially when they have such excellent PR and marketing as Jesus had.
His disciples spread his story quite well. Furthermore, in the competition for spiritual shelf space, Christianity had two big advantages over Judaism: it offered greater roles for women and required no circumcision.
But Jesus’ message soon became burdened with an accretion of mythology and superstition. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that if Jesus was indeed the humble soul I believe him to be, he would have said to his disciples something like, "Guys, please do not create a mythology around me, okay? Don’t make a god of me. Just pass on my message. No fairytales."
Well, they created fairytales anyway, and beautiful ones too, because people love stories, and good conduct apparently doesn’t sell on its own merits. But if you want a minimum of mythology, and perhaps a closer approximation of what Jesus may actually have said, I suggest you look at the Gospel of Thomas, which, of course, is not in the Bible, probably just because it contains so little of the supernatural.
If you put similar passages from Thomas and the accepted gospels side by side, you'll notice that the latter are more God-oriented. Keeping God center-stage means job security for priests – and power for Popes. It makes all the sense in the world.
But if Jesus was correct, then we don't need priests, rabbis, churches, synagogues, or any of the elaborate apparatus of religious myth and ritual. Part of his message was, as I understand it, that we can each be Christlike, through good behavior, 365 days a year. That would be a great way to celebrate his birth.